The soccer-mom stigma attached to minivans may be the most undeserved rap since the original George W. was busted for pruning that cherry tree. The fact is, the minivan is the most universally loved vehicular format ever invented. Unruly kids straighten up at the first flicker of the video screen. Gramps and grannies appreciate the effortless access and jolt-free ride. Moms and pops who try a minivan out of necessity often drive them for the rest of their car-consuming days. On the international one-to-ten efficiency scale, minivans top the charts with eleven-plus earned points for their ability to load the most people and possessions per square inch of shadow and for their willingness to transport those payloads for a reasonable energy expenditure.
Inventing the modern minivan was the most memorable accomplishment of the late Chrysler Corporation. Competitors were astonishingly slow to pick up the scent, so Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth dealers sold millions of them while engineers leisurely fine-tuned their designs, until Honda finally got around to launching a serious threat--the second-generation Odyssey--in 1999.
The Odyssey and a 2001 Chrysler Town & Country LXi, which recently survived Automobile Magazine's Four Seasons gauntlet, prove that the mini part of the name has become oxymoronic. They're both several inches wider and taller and hundreds of pounds heavier than a Cadillac DeVille. The cubic growth factor over the seminal 1984 model is a staggering 37 percent. Maxivan might be a better name for these sliding-door shrines to mobility.
Nevertheless, we dubbed ours Mini Driver. And drive we did--to campouts, soccer matches, summer vacations, and family reunions; on furniture-scavenging expeditions; and to Big Apple blowouts--nearly 34,000 miles in twelve months. Forget the fact that driving delight is right below oil-change interval on any minivan's priority list. When Saturday's to-do list runs long, a minivan is a far handier tool for errands than any Ferrari, Porsche, or BMW.
Chrysler had two full generations of practice before unleashing a clean-sheet model for the 2001 model year. Upgrades permeate every nook and cranny. A stiffer and stronger body structure is engineered to resist squeaks, rattles, and the Insurance Institute's brutal offset-barrier test. The front air bags get staged inflation, and there are new side air bags. Energy-absorbing trim covers interior hard points.
The Town & Country also has improved headlamps, larger-capacity brakes, more power and torque in both available V-6s (3.3- and 3.8-liters), improved steering and front suspension geometry, an updated electrical system, better door and window seals and additional sound deadening for a quieter interior, and wind-tunnel-tuned roof-rack bows.
With predatory competitors circling the minivan corral, the time was right for introducing a few glamour features. A power-operated, remote-controlled liftgate heads that list. Finally acknowledging that power-operated sliding side doors are desirable, Chrysler engineers improved their operation by locating drive motors in the doors instead of in the adjoining bodywork. The automatic air-conditioning system was upgraded to offer driver, front passenger, and rear passengers controls in their respective zones. The goody list also includes an ingenious cargo compartment organizer, a move-about or take-out center console, and wireless headphones for second- or third-row passengers.
Expectations were high that Chrysler would emulate Honda's celebrated stow-away rear seats, but it didn't happen. Without revealing all of their thoughts on the subject, the Chrysler crew stayed the course set in 1996, when roller-skate wheels were mounted beneath removable seats to facilitate their movement, both inside the van and to a parking spot in the garage. But they did at least take the ax to the third-row bench, every hernia surgeon's favorite friend. Splitting that seat into two equal-sized pieces not only diminishes the in-and-out drudgery; it also provides added flexibility when you're juggling people and packages.
While we appreciate the convenience of rear bench seats that disappear on cue, there are trade-offs to consider. There is no free lunch when it comes to packaging, so fuel capacity and spare-tire access become concerns. And it's important to remember that the interior space available with seats stored in the garage is inevitably grander than when they're along for the ride. Raising the floor to match the height of folded cushions is a fine idea as long as you don't mind sacrificing some cargo volume.
Would the lack of foldaway seats prove to be a hardship or just an inconvenience? To find out, we signed up for a long-term relationship with Chrysler's flagship Town & Country minivan. Ordered with LXi (mid-level) trim, cloth seats, and four-wheel drive, its window sticker totaled $33,995. The only extra-cost items were a $400 power liftgate and a $225 CD player for the stereo system, largely because the LXi edition is so lavishly equipped. Power assists galore, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, aluminum wheels, load-leveling rear dampers, and triple-zone temperature control are all included as base equipment at this trim level.
The instant we pressed Mini Driver into springtime service, the logbook started bubbling with commentary. The smooth ride and quiet powertrain impressed everyone. Acceleration was better than expected for a mom-mobile (10.1 seconds for the sprint to 60 mph). When the Sherman family loaded camping gear, a couple of four-legged friends, and a minibike for summer vacation, the trusty 215-horsepower V-6 shouldered the load without a whimper. The hop-in-and-go accessibility provided by seats that transport you at walking height and low-profile doorsills earned high acclaim. After a $1400 Mopar VHS entertainment system was added, the Automobile Magazine staff's child-care stress was halved. Ms. Driver had a date every weekend.
The vehicle also drew a few barbs. After praising the tasteful appearance of the vintage-style instrument cluster, most critics ranted about disappointing interior quality and an assortment of ergonomic foibles. Contributor Kirk Seaman called it "plain and uninspired, more Wal-Mart than Nordstrom." Several critics felt the eyebrow perched atop the dash for light-up indicators seemed like an afterthought. The designer who marked the tachometer with a 6500-rpm redline should someday meet the engineer who set the fuel-delivery cutoff at 5600 rpm. Our lanky design director, Darin Johnson, repeatedly bumped heads with the roof-mounted video screen, and everyone hated how it interrupted the rear-view mirror's sight line. Compounding that gripe, outside mirrors were deemed injudiciously small. Switch panels for climate control and entertainment systems and the front-seat cup holders are all lower than we'd like. The triple-zone HVAC panel seems intimidating at first glance, although it worked faultlessly throughout our experience.
The logbook also registered a few mechanical-system rants. The steering felt slightly rubbery and nonlinear off-center, the automatic transmission was too easily confused, and we complained about the body's tendency to rock back on its heels during heavy acceleration. Operation of the on-demand four-wheel-drive system was so transparent that it generated few comments. Our design director had a ball hammering through drifts during one snowy commute to work, and associate editor Joe DeMatio praised the sure-footedness he observed while negotiating his steep, slippery driveway during winter months.
Most folks felt that the seats fit their physiques acceptably well and provided reasonable long-distance comfort. There's ample space for a sprawling family, as long as front occupants don't consume too much second-row knee room by overindulging their fore-and-aft and backrest settings. The same Seaman who griped about the dcor enthused about the ease of packing a sofa, two chairs, two coffee tables, and one footstool into the cargo bay with room to spare. What he didn't know was the heft of the seats he lifted. Middle-row buckets tip the scales at 60 pounds each, while the split back-row perches weigh 50 pounds apiece.
The power portals were a source of amusement, amazement, and near-universal adoration. The learning curve entails discovering the locations of ten different command switches, making sure the shifter is in park, and exercising patience while the safety systems run their checks. The side-door opening sequence lasts six seconds; closing and latching each slider takes about nine. For the liftgate, it's nine seconds for opening and nearly fifteen for closing. That seems agonizingly long until you consider alternatives, such as the round trip from the driver's seat to usher a passenger into the back seat. Anyone who's juggled an infant in one arm and a bag of groceries in the other on a rainy day won't need a sales pitch to appreciate every minivan's must-have feature.
Mini Driver turned in a near-perfect reliability record. The only blotch was a freak electrical breakdown suffered by the Shermans when it was time to back down the driveway loaded with Fourth of July vacation cheer. A quick jumper-cable jolt resuscitated the Town & Country's vital signs, but there's nothing quite like a total blackout for wracking nerves at the start of a long trip. A technician diagnosed the malady as the early stages of alternator failure.
The overall 19-mpg mileage disappointed most reviewers, even though it fell within the 17-mpg city and 22-mpg highway predictions forecast by the window sticker's DOE/EPA label. It's important to remember that we're cooling a small house, moving a two-ton-plus vehicle, and dragging four-wheel drive hither and yon. Fuel efficiency that's poorer than a family sedan's and not much better than an SUV's is to be expected.
Ultimately, the Town & Country's happy disposition and let's-go attitude more than compensated for its thirst at the pumps and the foibles we experienced during Four Seasons of use. It's clear why this example of the minivan breed is such a favorite. The one suggestion we have for Chrysler's advanced planners is not to miss foldaway seats--why not for both rear rows?--in the next generation. As for Mini Driver, we sent her toward her next assignment with the Automobile Magazine Academy's accolades for exemplary performance in a difficult supporting role.